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Assessing The Security Threat Of Google's Desktop Search

There is some confusion about threats posed by the new search tool. Google says common sense is enough of a patch.

Google's Desktop Search doesn't come with a warning label, but perhaps it should. "This isn't a great application for cybercafes or library terminals," says Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products at Google Inc.

Google introduced the application online last week. The software enables people to search their E-mail files, instant-messaging chats, Web-browsing history, and other local documents using Google's Web interface.

Mayer suggests thinking of the application as a photographic memory for a computer's activities. One thing that's necessary for memory, she says, is a history. Toward that end, the application indexes and stores versions of files and other computer activity. The company's stated goal is to make information easier to find.

This presents a challenge to those who rely on security through obscurity.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Richard Smith, an Internet privacy and security consultant. "It's great for organizing. It's a wonderful tool. The downside is it's also a spying tool." If someone has access to your computer and is curious about what you've been up to, that person can just type in a few phrases, he adds.

"We can only make Desktop Search as secure as your computer," Mayer says. "If you lose control of your computer, yes, it's possible people could use Desktop Search and search for various items. However, there are also a lot of other things they could do to your computer while they're sitting in front of it."

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